Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Book Tour + #Giveaway: Shadyia Ascendant by T.S. Adrian @ShadyiaAscendnt @SDSXXTours

Beneath the Silver Rose
Shadyia Ascendants Book 1
by T.S. Adrian
Genre: Epic Fantasy, Romance
Forbidden Romance in an Age of Veiled Magic!
When Shadyia, a courtesan of the Silver Rose, violates the tenets of the Sisterhood, she is commanded by her madam to appease an order of vicious crusaders by seducing a powerful magician masquerading as a wealthy scholar.
Caught between an ancient conflict of Order and Chaos, Shadyia and her companions must descend beneath the Silver Rose into a labyrinth of deadly traps and shadowy guardians. For only there can she defy the crusaders who threaten her sorority and avert the prophecy of a darkness that returns to consume the world.
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Chapter 1

BELLS CLAMORED throughout the Silver Rose. Shadyia glanced up from her board game as the sisters around her stopped mid-sentence and leaped to their feet. The tones were far from the usual rhythm beckoning them to meals or a lesson with the madam. Could the palace be under attack? 
The doors to the east vestibule burst open and Mistress Sybaris strode into White Hall. “Reception Etiquette,” she said and made a shooing gesture with a flick of her arms. Her silver clips scarcely held her frizzled hair in place and dampness stained the armpits of her burgundy gown. “To your positions.” 
The sisters scattered and Shadyia stepped toward the doors of the audience. Whatever had kicked over the anthill had to be serious. During the six years she had resided within the palace, she had never known Sybaris to lose her poise or move at other than a steady and measured pace. 
“Sister Shadyia, wait. Come with me,” Sybaris said over her shoulder as she lifted the hem of her gown and glided up the grand stairs. “The madam wants a word with you.” 
Shadyia froze in her tracks. Why did Madam Amrita want to see her? She hurried to catch up, her house slippers slapping the shallow steps built for ladies in dresses. The bells fell silent as they entered the east ballroom. Only moonlight pushing between the tall, purple curtains showed the way as they crossed the dance floor, viewed by the silhouettes of ghosts tooled into the tapestries. Madam Amrita and Mistress Makayla stood buried in the drapes as if hiding from someone. The madam beckoned them over. 
“We must use all our skills, Sisters,” Amrita said as they drew near. “Dustan is the most dangerous of the House of Mienhard.” 
Shadyia parted the heavy drape and peered down at the dawn gate. Lord Dunstan Mienhard—here? Beneath the light of lanterns set on high poles, three shadowy figures dismounted gray chargers. Stable hands rushed to take over the horses as the riders moved toward the gated arch. A well-dressed man in a brimmed hat led the other two, his head tilted back as if searching the windows where Shadyia observed. As he neared the gate, his elbow pushed aside a leather riding coat and his gloved hand rested on the hilt of sword. 
Cold fingers grazed her spine. It was he, sure enough. Dunstan Mienhard, the infamous swordsman known as the King’s Beloved Uncle. The man to Lord Dunstan’s right had hair that hung straight and fair, his stern gaze and hewn physique suggested years of hard training. Tattoos of black flame covered his arms. He kept pace with his master, his fist tight on the hilt of a curved dagger at his side. The other man mirrored the first perfectly, save for a longsword strapped across his back. 
Shadyia gripped the curtain. Wolfguard!—the sentinels of the king’s family, trained from birth to kill at a nod. 
The three men halted before the gate and Lord Dunstan leaned slightly as if to speak to the man with the curved dagger. The wolfguard answered and pointed with his chin at the palace. 
“What are they saying?” Amrita asked. 
“He said she’s in there,” Sybaris replied. 
Shadyia glanced at her mistress of guardians. How had she—? Ah! Lip reading. Useful. 
Lord Dunstan pulled hard on the bell. Guardian sisters dressed in white tunics and armed with slender batons rushed down the marble steps. They unbarred the gate and Dunstan’s guard shoved them aside. He marched up the steps into the palace. 
Shadyia backed away from the window and glanced at the madam and her two mistresses. Hopefully, someone would tell her what all this was about—and why she, of all the sisters, had been invited to bear witness. Sybaris knelt and loosened a stiletto sheathed in a boot. Uttering grim predictions, the raven-haired Makayla paced, gripping the sides of her black gown. 
Madam Amrita turned from the window. “Ladies, please wait for me at the back doors to the audience. I’ll be with you shortly.” 
They bowed and departed. 
The madam gathered her dark brown hair, streaked with gray, behind her shoulders. “I believe I know why Lord Dunstan is here. He’s come for you, Sister.” 
Shadyia blinked. There must be some mistake. Dunstan wasn’t one of her coins; he wasn’t any sister’s coin. The madam forbid servicing House Mienhard. No amount of silver, she often schooled them, was worth the peril of learning the secrets of the king’s house. 
“For me? Why?” 
“You are the favorite of Lord William Querry. This afternoon at the Diamond, the horse owned by William defeated the horse owned by Lord Dunstan. That race was very important to Dunstan, and he is furious.” 
Shadyia stared hard at her madam. The ringing bells, scrambling sisters, Sybaris appearing as if she were moments from wading into battle—all this over a horse race? Then again, nobles obsessed over such things, but what had she herself to do with— 
A chill seized her. Dunstan killed men who offended him, but for women he was known to pursue a different form of amusement. 
“Dunstan will punish William Querry by commanding his guard to rape and beat me.” 
“Correct,” Amrita said. “That is why you must hide. Don’t go to your quarters. He may know where that is. I suggest one of the storerooms beneath the kitchens. Go now and avoid the east vestibule.” She turned to leave. 
Madam, wait. Mistress Sybaris said the wolfguard knows I’m here.” 
Amrita stopped. “I’ll tell him you’re not,” she said over her shoulder. “I’ll tell him you are servicing a coin and are away from the palace.” 
“Dunstan will never believe you over his guard. Even if he does, he’ll just choose another sister.” 
Amrita faced her. “Unlikely. To beat another would fail to send the message he desires to William Querry.” 
“But it would punish you for denying his wrath. Madam, this is Dunstan Mienhard. You were with me at the plaza last month. Did he strike you as a man who will just walk away on your word alone?” 
She hoped her point had hammered home. Just the month before, Dunstan had accepted a challenge from a retired knight-general, a veteran of numerous campaigns and a grandfather of sixteen. The stodgy general had little choice but to demand a duel when Lord Dunstan called him a coward. Duels were a common form of entertainment for the gentry, and seldom to the death, so quite a crowd had gathered to bear witness, Amrita and Shadyia among them. They’d watched in shock as Dunstan repeatedly sliced the elderly knight-general and finished him with a piercing stab to the throat. ‘Cowards deserve no quarter,’ 
Dunstan had said, using a white cloth to wipe the general’s blood off his blacksteel sword. 
“What is your concern?” the madam asked. 
“If Dunstan has come for me,” Shadyia answered, tapping her chest, “then it is I who should deal with him.” She didn’t know exactly how she would deal with him, but another sister would not suffer in her stead. 
Amrita studied her for a moment, but Shadyia couldn’t tell if her madam’s thoughts were filled with admiration or doubt. “Very well,” she said at last. “Take your place in the audience, but keep your hood low and blend in with the others. You are not to reveal yourself until I command it. Understood?” 
“Yes, Madam.” 
Amrita walked toward the back steps to the audience. Shadyia pulled up the hood on her short sapphire dress, dashed from the ballroom and hurried down the grand stairs to White Hall. She followed the last of her sisters into the audience and closed the doors behind her. Lanterns on hooks pooled light throughout the domed, circular chamber. Hood pulled low, Shadyia leaned against a pillar and crossed her arms above her waist. The others had taken various postures meant to distract, lure and entice, their faces partly hidden under low hoods. Red-haired Deresi, a sister from Shadyia’s own circle, looked particularly tempting as she sat on the lip of the fountain, her fingers playing in the rippling water and her legs parted just enough to tease a man’s attention. 
The doors to the Welcome Hall thundered open and Lord Dunstan entered. He swept his gaze over the chamber, his hand resting on the pommel of his sword, and made for the madam’s chair. His wolfguard slammed the doors in the face their guardian sister escort, and then turned their backs to better observe their master. Dunstan halted before the single-step dais and scowled up at the statue of Luun standing protectively behind the madam’s chair. He removed his hat and cast it over the hand of the statue that held the silver rose. 
Shadyia seethed. Luun was more than the sister’s patroness; she was an emblem of feminine strength and dignity—one that Dunstan had reduced to a rack for his hat. 
The rear doors to the chamber opened. Chin elevated, shoulders back and one hand placed upon the other at waist-level, Madam Amrita entered with Mistress Sybaris and Mistress Makayla a few steps behind. 
Lord Dunstan pivoted toward the approaching women, grasped his blacksteel longsword and tugged it within reach. Shadyia furrowed her brow. Was he actually afraid of the madam? Ah, of course. She grinned beneath her hood. His hilt-grip was meant for Sybaris. The mistress of guardians had a fearsome reputation. 
Holding the hem of her elaborate pearl gown, Amrita dipped, her gaze lowered. Sybaris and Makayla did likewise. 
“Lord Dunstan, you honor my house,” Amrita said, rising. 
Dunstan puffed his cheeks behind a blond mustache. “That’s not saying much.” He removed his riding coat and flung it across the chair. Their backs still to the main doors, his wolfguard grinned like jackals over a fresh kill. Shadyia ground her teeth. The pig! He would not even allow the madam her place of honor. 
“How may I be of service?” Amrita asked with—remarkably—no hint of outrage in her voice. 
Dunstan faced her. “Service? I thought you didn’t service House Mienhard.” 
“As a matter of policy, my lord.” 
“Your girls suck half the cocks in Anderholm, but the king’s house isn’t good enough for them?” 
“Take no offense, my lord. Even the most skilled courtesan can conceive a child. With any other house we are free to terminate the seed, but if the house that straddles a sister also sits upon the throne, this…solution…is inappropriate.” 
Shadyia tensed as Dunstan took a step toward Amrita. “I am offended you think me fool enough to accept that excuse. But it is of no matter.” He addressed the room. “This policy ends tonight. I require one of your girls, the favorite of Querry’s third son, William. She goes by the name Shadyia. Bring her to my guard at once.” 
“I’m sorry, my lord, but Sister Shadyia is away from the Silver Rose until tomorrow.” 
Dunstan rounded on Amrita and struck her across her face. She cried out, fell back and only Sybaris’s reflexes kept her head from smacking the floor. Gasps erupted from the sisters about the chamber as Shadyia pushed against her pillar, her hands becoming fists. 
Dunstan rubbed his knuckles in the palm of his hand. “Do not lie to me, whore. I know she’s here. Bring her to me at once.” 
Sybaris reached back to her boot—but the madam caught her wrist. “She is not, sire. I swear it. She lies with her client, Lord Martel—” 
Amrita cried out as Dunstan kicked her hip with a steel-tipped boot and reached for his sword. 
Enough! Shadyia swept the hood off her gown. Amrita would not suffer on her behalf. No one would. She stepped to the center of the room. “My lord, I am here!” 
The wolfguard rushed forward and seized her arms. Amrita shot her a seething look, but changed to an expression of pleading as Dunstan glared back down at her. “Mercy, Lord. She’s just a girl.” 
Dunstan sneered, a look of victory in his eyes. “She’s no girl. And, from the way William boasted, he’s quite taken with her.” He turned his vulturous gaze on Shadyia and followed her curves. “But, after my men are finished, he won’t find her so attractive.” 
Disgust nearly forced her to twist away, but she closed her mind to Dunstan’s words. Think. Don’t struggle. The calloused hands clamped on her biceps offered no hope for escape. What could she do? 
Once again, Dunstan addressed the women in the audience chamber. “Let this stand as a warning. My horse is not to be defeated, at the Diamond, or anyplace else!” 
Deception. It was her only chance. Deceit had worked six years ago when the king’s men had found her covered in blood near a dead noble. It would work here as well. She went limp and hung in the men’s arms, her dark hair obscuring her face. The wolfguard’s laughter jostled their hands. 
Dunstan chuckled from across the room. “Rouse her. Do her here, before all.” 
She’d counted on that. Few cruel men enjoyed battering an unconscious girl—and Dunstan would want plenty of witnesses. The brute to her right released her arm. Boots appeared below her limp knees as his companion took her full weight. A fist seized her hair and jerked her head upright—but the man’s grin melted beneath her searing glare. 
Putting some strength back into her legs, she reached low and slid his curved blade from its sheath. Slash hard with the edge! Fast! The upward cut she dealt beneath his chin spattered his blood across her face. His eyes bulged like a toad as he freed her hair and grasped at his spurting artery. Perfect. One down and the other had his hands full—of her. She reversed the dagger and plunged it into the hip of the man behind. The guard shrieked and released her arm. She glanced over her shoulder as he snatched at the sword strapped to his back. Idiot! With a twist on the balls of her feet, she yanked the dagger out of his side and slashed open his throat in one smooth circle. The man gurgled on a red spray beneath his chin, his knees buckled and he fell like a wall of bricks. His head struck the floor and his sword, half drawn, slipped from his fingers. A grin tugged at the corner of Shadyia’s mouth. Not bad at all. Four seconds, three cuts, and two of Dunstan’s finest were down, thrashing in their own blood. 
A sword hissed from its scabbard to her left. “You bitch.” Lord Dunstan pointed his blade at her. 
Shadyia glanced at his weapon. Blacksteel, probably Erebros. It would be light and fast. She took a quick measure of the room. The area wasn’t ideal for a duel, but it should pose little hindrance. Slender pillars supported the dome around the madam’s chair and several ornate stands held potted plants, but there was still plenty of open space. Many of the sisters had pulled back their hoods and gawked with wide eyes, but they were far enough away to be out of danger. Over at the dais, Sybaris helped the madam back to her feet. The mistress of guardians would protect the madam if Dunstan attacked her. 
Shadyia dropped the dagger on the corpse of the man who had grabbed her hair. He could have it back. A drop of blood slid from her chin and stained her short gown as she put her foot on the shoulder of the dying wolfguard and slid free his half-drawn longsword. She swung the blade high over her head and faced Dunstan. 
He slashed the air. “Yes, come to me, whore. I’ve killed eleven men in duels.” 
The leather-wrapped hilt felt good in her hand. She smirked at Dunstan. No man walked into her home and battered her sisters. 
“I’ll need to catch up. I’ve only bagged two today.” 
Laughter skipped among the women. Lord Dunstan snarled and lunged with an overhand strike, his sword a whistling blur. Their blades met with clang of steel that shocked her arms from wrists to elbows. Dunstan leaped back and thrust forward, a tactic she’d observed when he had killed the fat general. She knocked his blade aside and repeated the move so perfectly he nearly died from his own assault. He recovered and charged, swinging wildly. She sidestepped and smacked his bottom with the flat of her sword as he passed. The sisters laughed and even Amrita rewarded her with a grin. 
The doors to the audience swung open and four guardian sisters poured in, their batons held at the ready. Dunstan maintained his gaze on Shadyia and took up a balanced, controlled fighting stance. He’d gotten the message. Here was no easy prey. She risked a glance past Dunstan. At the dais, Sybaris jabbed at the air, pointing at positions around the chamber. The guardians dispersed, likely to defend unarmed sisters. Shadyia nodded in approval toward her mistress of guardians. This was not their fight. She touched the sword’s hilt to her forehead and mirrored his pose. 
Dunstan opened with a thrust. She parried and stepped back to hold her balance. The slash and slice of sharp steel echoed off walls and pillars as she fended off Dunstan’s every assault and thrice forced him to retreat. She passed over an opening to critically wound him and end the duel, and then another a few parries later. This was the great swordsman? Oh, how I’d enjoy skewering you before the madam and my sisters—but she mustn’t. Slaying guards was permitted, but no one could kill a member of the king’s house and hope to be excused. She would just have to settle for humiliating him. 
Sisters scattered as, swords striking, the pair moved toward them, some diving behind the fountain or Amrita’s chair. Dunstan leaped past a pillar, reversed his step and stabbed where he had obviously hoped she would chase him. Shadyia scoffed and stepped back—Did he think she would fall for that?—and re-engaged with a slash at his ankles that forced him to block low and stumble. Sweat beading his brow, he parried her follow-up stab at his side and backed toward the fountain. Dunstan glared at her, his sword trembling in his hand. He looked to be on the verge of surrendering. Pathetic. Shadyia glanced over her shoulder and offered the madam a sardonic glance. Was this the man they feared so much? 
As her attention returned to Dunstan, he seized a potted fern from a low table. Before she could advance, he hurled the pot at her and, his sword raised for a strike, leaped at Sister Deresi who knelt next to the fountain. 
Shadyia struck the pot out of air with a swipe of her sword and charged Dunstan. She could not bring her blade up quickly enough, but slammed her shoulder into his back and knocked him into the shallow water. Thrashing, cursing and coughing, he rolled out of the fountain and flopped like an eel on the floor. He tried to rise, but Shadyia held the tip of her sword at his throat. He had almost killed Deresi. Bastard! 
Shadyia glared down at him, her teeth clenched and her heart hammering a river of hot rage through her veins. Dunstan had one chance to live. Just one. She jabbed his throat. “Yield, my lord.” 
He cleared mucus from his throat. “Fucking whore”—and spat at her. 
Thick warmth pelted her cheek in the same place he had struck Amrita. The sisters, the audience chamber, the madam and her mistresses vanished in a red haze. Her entire world became this vile man and her—and it wasn’t big enough for them both. She caught the sword by its pommel in her fists and lifted it, point down, over Dunstan. 
“Shadyia, no!” Amrita cried. 
Shadyia slammed her heel into his crotch. As Dunstan heaved up, she impaled his chest with such force the sword pierced clean through his ribs and struck the floor behind him. Dunstan looked at the spreading stain on his soaked shirt and turned a shocked gaze up at the woman who had killed him. 
“Cowards deserve no quarter,” Shadyia said and twisted the blade. 
Lord Dunstan’s final gasp ended with a sob as the life drained from his eyes. His chest slid down her sword, leaving it red. She grinned. Those fine words would follow him into Abysm. She pushed her sandaled foot against his groin, wrenched the sword free and stepped back. 
Only the rush of the fountain filled the audience. Shadyia flung down the sword. The impact startled her sisters and spattered Lord Dunstan’s blood in red streaks across the floor. She swept her gaze over the chamber, meeting the eyes of each woman. If any of them should speak of this night to a coin or whisper it in a tavern, Shadyia would trade the mattress in her quarters for a pile of filthy straw before her life ended in a noose. Or worse. 
She knelt beside the shallow fountain and washed the blood and spittle from her face. Deresi peeked over its far edge and gaped at her through unkempt red hair. Their gazes met and Deresi bit her lower lip, an enthralled look in her green eyes. Shadyia winked. That was quite a show, wasn’t it? 
Mistress Makayla broke the thick stillness. “We are finished. Ruined.” 
Shadyia stood and shook the water out of her hands. She stared down at her handiwork. Dunstan’s eyes were open and disbelief was still etched in his face. What had she done? The beloved uncle of the king lay skewered on the floor. 
I don’t care! She glared at her mistress of sisters and kicked dead Dunstan’s leg. “He tried to kill Sister Deresi.” 
Makayla gnashed her teeth. “He was at your mercy and you butchered him like—” 
“—like a pig, yes.“ 
Makayla rounded on the dais. “Madam, we should send a rider to Anderholm at once and summon Magistrate Alberich. Have the guardians hold Sisters Shadyia in custody and turn her over to the Redcloaks when he arrives.” 
Shadyia scowled. Did Makayla just—? One more word like that, bitch, and I will… 
Amrita dabbed at the cut on her lips with her sleeve. “I will do no such thing.” 
“She did this!” Makayla pointed at Shadyia. “She! Are we all to suffer because of one idiot girl?” 
Shadyia charged. Before her fist could make contact with Makayla’s jaw, her arm was caught and the room blurred. Pain drove the wind from her ribs as her back slammed onto the floor. 
A finger stabbed down at her like the tip of a spear. “Stand down, Sister.” 
Shadyia blinked to clear her vision. Sybaris! How had she crossed the floor so quickly? 
“You see, Madam?” Makayla said, her face pale. “She’s out of control. You must have her confined and summon the Redcloaks.” 
With a groan, Shadyia rolled to her feet. Sybaris moved between her and Makayla, but she held up her hands in submission; she had no desire to meet the floor again. 
“What’s done is done,” Sybaris said, directing her words to Makayla. “Alberich will never believe one sister killed three men—not without help, which means by the madam’s command. If we involve them, we will all spend a fortnight in the bastille.” 
A visible chill moved through the room. Shadyia, a caged tiger, halted her pacing. There were laws in Anderholm against torturing women, but none of those laws mattered in cases of treason—and slaying a member of the king’s house was treason. 
Makayla threw up her arms. “When Dunstan and his guard fail to return to his estate, the Redcloaks will get involved whether we tell them or not.” 
Amrita stepped down off the dais. “I need three volunteers to dress in the dead men’s clothing.” She leveled her gaze at Shadyia, appointing her as one of the volunteers. “They will pretend to be Dunstan and his guard, in case we are being watched, and ride into the forest for Waytower clearing. Mistress Sybaris, arm a detachment of guardians. Sister Deresi, kindly go—Sister Deresi!” 
Startled, Deresi pulled her gaze off Shadyia and jumped to her feet. “Yes, Madam.” 
“Kindly go to the stables and ask the hands to ready a covered wagon. Tell them nothing and drive the wagon back to the palace yourself.” 
Deresi hurried out through the main doors. 
Makayla’s heels clicked across the floor. “Count me out of this.” The rear doors to the audience chamber slammed shut behind her. 
Madam Amrita addressed the room. “The rest of you, roll up the bodies in carpets and load them into the wagon when it arrives. You will meet with the imposters in the forest. Guardians will provide an escort.” 
“We’ll need more blood,” Sybaris said. 
Amrita took a quick breath and blew it out. “Dunstan’s horses will provide that. Get moving, all of you.” 
Shadyia glared down at dead Dunstan. Would she really have to wear his wet, bloodstained clothing? She stepped out of her house slippers, yanked off one of his boots and sniffed it. Ugh. That was a mistake. She’d wear his bloody shirt and sodden trousers, but his hose would remain where it was. Nothing that had cradled Dunstan’s cock and balls would touch her. She stripped him and pulled his soaked shirt and trousers over her house gown. Her bare foot bitterly protested being in Dunstan’s clammy boot. A sigh pushed through her lips as she tucked in the leg of his damp trousers. Wearing wet clothes was better than being locked up in a room and waiting to be handed over to the Redcloaks. She reached for the next boot—and paused. What would happen at Waytower clearing? 
And why would they need more blood? 
Fingers of gray from an unseen moon silhouetted the black trunks of trees, their branches closing overhead until the packed road nearly vanished. Shadyia shifted in the saddle of Lord Dunstan’s horse and glanced back at the sisters who rode behind her. They said nothing and looked away. Yesterday they had laughed, bathed and dined with her. Now they refused to make eye contact. She shivered in the damp clothing and stroked the horse’s neck, grateful for the animal’s warmth. At least Dunstan’s hat and cloak, recovered from the statue of Luun and the madam’s chair, were dry and comfortable. 
Shadyia ground her teeth. Didn’t her friends understand? She had slain those men to protect their sorority. The moment a man of privilege such as Lord Dunstan believed he could rape and kill women without consequence, other vicious men would do the same. 
The thought of Dunstan made Shadyia grip the reins until the animal took that as a command to stop. She clicked her tongue and urged him on. Dunstan had ordered his thugs to rape and beat her because his horse had been bested at the Diamond by the one owned by William Querry. He had struck Madam Amrita as if she were a servant who had spilled his ale. Such disrespect could not go unchallenged. 
She had tried to speak to Amrita as the sisters rolled Dunstan and his guards into three carpets and loaded them into a wagon. Shadyia had wanted to explain why she had defied the madam’s order, but Amrita had silenced her with an icy glare. ‘We’ll talk upon your return,’ she had told Shadyia before walking away. 
Shadyia concentrated on guiding the horse along the dark road to stave off her fear at the madam’s demeanor. Damn Dunstan and all gentlemen of his ilk. She should be having supper now, not creeping through a murky forest full of outlaws and bandits. 
My father liked to ride at night. He had often told her the silence allowed his spirit to roam lands unseen. Father, may the gods favor you to ride their mighty horses across the eternal plains of Eriensym. The prayer was calming and Shadyia took a deep breath of the night air. It would be the reward her father deserved. He’d spent decades in the royal cavalry protecting Anderholm from its enemies, and upon retirement had received a small pension and patch of land. Afterwards, he had adopted Shadyia, just eleven summers old, from Mother Sara’s orphanage. Raising her as his own, he had trained her to ride and plant and harvest. Moreover, he taught her the hard values he’d learned from years of untainted duty. Once she had asked him why he had taken a girl from Mother Sara and not a boy. His response had surprised her. ‘Women are superior to men in every measurable way’ he’d said. She liked that answer. The years with him had been the happiest of her life—until a noble like Dunstan had driven him to his death. That had been six years ago. She’d lost a home she loved that night and the nearest she had ever had to a father. 
What would he think of her now? Would her father understand why she had come into Madam Amrita’s service? Would he blame himself? Or would he curse her and never call her daughter again? 
Shame clouded her thoughts until she forced them aside by reminiscing about William Querry. She grinned in the dark. She enjoyed his company as much as his money. He was well muscled and handsome enough to have his pick of women in the city, but like most nobles he preferred a professional touch—and the fact that sisters chewed larsenic leaves to prevent conception lessened the chance of bastard children wandering the streets of Anderholm. Each meeting with him ended the same: dinner, followed by a story about his beloved horses, and then an evening of well-paid passion. 
At last they reached Waytower clearing. Shadyia listened for the wagon the sisters should have loaded with dead Dunstan and his guards after she and the others had ridden into the forest. Only the wind in the leaves, the hoot of an owl and a grunt from one of the horses disturbed the inky silence. Amrita had chosen the clearing well. This road through the Kingsleaf was one route Lord Dunstan might have taken back to his estate. Shadyia now understood. The madam intended to make it look as if he and his guard had been attacked by hostiles in the forest. It was a sound plan. Magistrate Alberich and the Redcloaks should have no trouble believing a man with Dunstan’s arrogance would ride through Kingsleaf at night with only two guards. 
Lost in her thoughts, she failed to hear the wagon approach until it was almost upon them. The sisters who had masqueraded as Dunstan’s men dismounted and began stripping off the guards’ clothing. Shadyia dropped from her horse. Guardians formed a protective ring, their batons replaced by swords and loaded crossbows in case actual bandits attacked while they staged the faux assault. Two sisters held torches while the others dragged out three bundles wrapped in carpets. The bodies of Dunstan and his men were unrolled by the time Shadyia stood shivering in her thin house gown, damp and stained with blood from Dunstan’s clothing. She pulled out the house slippers she had tucked into her gold belt as the sisters redressed the bodies before tying them upright on the skittish horses. Sybaris passed crossbows and several bolts to Shadyia and two of her guardians. Shadyia once had a coin who enjoyed shooting bottles off a fence with bolts from his crossbow. He had allowed her a few tries and she rewarded him well for the practice. Sisters were busy securing the horses to prevent their escape as she grounded the stirrup, loaded an iron-tipped bolt and used both hands to lock the string. She rested the tiller against her shoulder, clenched her jaw and took aim at the gray stallion she had ridden into the Kingsleaf—but lowered the weapon. Couldn’t the horses have escaped or had been captured and sold? She sighed. No. For the ambush to seem genuine, the ‘bandits’ could show no regard for the animals Dunstan and his guard had ridden. 
“Aim for the neck,” Sybaris said. 
They loosed at her command. The horses reared and cried out in agony. Misty-eyed, Shadyia reloaded. May you shriek in the empty torment of Abysm for all time, Dunstan! She reloaded and released again and again until her horse stopped thrashing. Her remaining three bolts proved far easier. These she shot into Dunstan, who lay on his slain horse, slack-mouthed and eyes glazed over. The ropes were then removed and Sybaris added the finishing touch by soaking a cloth in horse blood and dripping it profusely where the bolts had struck the men. The bodies were stripped of rings, purses, boots and weapons. After one last search to ensure nothing could be traced back to the Silver Rose, Shadyia helped her sisters roll up the carpets and load them into the wagon. 
The others took a place in back. Sybaris turned and held up her hand. “Sister Shadyia, you will stay and see that the tracks are covered.” 
Fear stabbed her. Was Sybaris really going to leave her here? Did she want her lost in the forest, like the unwanted baby of a peasant? She turned down her gaze. “Yes, Mistress.” 
“Do you know how to do this?” 
“Yes, Mistress. I will find heavy branches and drag them over the tracks.” 
None of her sisters looked back as the wagon pulled away. Her breath frosting, Shadyia stood shivering in her damp house gown and sandals. All she had wanted to do was protect herself and the home she loved, and they were punishing her for it. 
She searched for a suitable branch. 
The moon shone so bright it washed the stars from the sky by the time Shadyia staggered back barefoot to the Silver Rose. Her sandals had caught so often in the underbrush, she had cast them away in frustration. Her gashed and throbbing feet constantly reminded her how much of a mistake that had been. She gazed up into the night. There was a tale from her childhood of the Goddess Luun battling constantly against giants of darkness that sought to devour her sacred light. The memory gave her enough strength to scale the vine-covered wall. 
A guardian sister stepped into view from her station on the tower. Shadyia waved and the guardian lifted a hand in greeting. There was a servant’s door hidden by thick ivy that allowed her to enter the vestibule. Limping, she crossed the freezing floor and glowered at the stairs that led up to her apartment. Would she even have the strength to climb them? I’ll make it to my bed, even if I have to crawl. Makayla and Sybaris would be denied the satisfaction of finding her collapsed on the floor in the morning. She would wake fresh and face them with dignity. 
A flurry of movement caused her to whip her head around before finding herself caught in a sudden embrace. 
“Oh, thank Luun you are safe!” Deresi’s words were muffled in Shadyia’s hair. “I was so worried.” 
Shadyia returned the hug with as much strength as her numb muscles allowed. “I am well. I am well.” 
“I cannot believe they just left you out there. What was Sybaris thinking? You could have been raped, killed, even worse.” 
Shadyia snickered. “Worse?” 
Deresi’s own laugh turned into a sob. 
“I am well, Sister. Shh.” 
Clicks against the stone floor forced them apart. Shadyia groaned. Only one person in the Silver Rose tapped her heels like that. 
Makayla emerged from the dark between the pillars. “Mistress Sybaris was thinking that Sister Shadyia needed to learn a lesson.” She placed her hands on her hips and tilted her head. “And from the looks of her, I would say she learned it rather well.” 
Shadyia kept her jaw tight. She would enjoy seeing Makayla after a stomp through the forest dressed in nothing but a house dress and slippers. The pampered witch would have fainted after ten steps. “It was a good lesson, Mistress, and I thank her for it.” 
Makayla’s scowl pierced into her. Shadyia pressed her knees together and refused to cringe. At last, the mistress dropped her hands to her sides. “Rest, Sister Shadyia. The madam has retired for the evening, but she will speak with you after first meal. Before you return to your comforts, take a moment to look at all the Silver Rose has given you. Take a good, long look.” Makayla spun and clicked away, her long black hair on a black dress merging with the shadows. Her voice speared out of the dark. “It will be the last you see of it.” 
Shadyia rubbed her forehead. Had she lost her home after all? Six years of whoring just to be returned to the streets. She put her foot on the first step and gathered her strength for the long climb to her apartment. 
Deresi laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Come with me.” 
“The baths. You need one, badly.” 
Shadyia groaned. That would hardly help. Without servants to stroke the fires, the baths would be cold and the water freezing. 
“Sister, I—” 
Deresi placed a finger on her lips. With a mischievous glint in her green eyes, she ushered Shadyia across the floor and down the circling steps to a heavy door that Deresi pulled open. Shadyia expected darkness and cold air, but was greeted by soft light and scented steam. Caprasia, another sister from Shadyia’s circle, stood next to a shallow pool filled with foaming water. Lit candles, accentuating the blond woman’s golden hair, lined the floor around the pool’s edge. 
Shadyia gaped at the warm pool. They had done all this for her? Deresi loosened Shadyia’s bloodstained robe and slipped it off her shoulders, followed by her undergarments. She took Shadyia by the hands and, walking backward, led her into the pool. The cuts on her feet jabbed like wasp stings as the she waded in, but her wounds soon crooned with the rest of her legs. Caprasia filled a decanter and poured a foamy cascade of warm water over Shadyia’s head. Her hair held as much as it could then released rivulets of warmth down her back and over her breasts. 
“Blessed gods, that feels good,” Shadyia said as Caprasia upended a second decanter. 
Deresi tossed her unkempt hair over her shoulder and, sensuously rubbing with her hands, worked an amofous blossom to a rich lather. She and Caprasia caressed off layers of dirt and sweat until their hair hung in wet strings and their gowns clung to their skin. Caprasia doused her once more to wash off the soap and Deresi led her out of the water to a masseuse bench covered with a white cloth. 
Shadyia sat on the bench, dripping wet and wonderfully clean. Deresi raised her foot and poured a small vial of golden oil over her cuts and bruises. Shadyia gasped. Jilqu oil! She tried to pull her foot free, but Deresi held firm. Her sore feet sent messages of relief as the healing oil sealed her cuts and soothed her blisters—but the pleasure collided with a rush of guilt. Sisters were issued one vial of jilqu oil every six moons, each containing twenty drops of oil, each drop worth a laymen’s yearly wage. Deresi must have sacrificed her private allotment. Mist formed over Shadyia’s eyes and became streaks of tears. 
While Deresi lifted her other foot and rubbed jilqu into her wounds, Caprasia stepped in front of her. She kissed Shadyia’s lips and cheeks, instantly drying her tears. Not a kiss of passion, but of comfort. Inviting Shadyia to lie on her stomach, Caprasia worked a deep massage that bordered on the edge of abuse on Shadyia’s shoulders, lower back and neck. 
Shadyia groaned with bliss. Men would pay a fortune for this—and probably twice that to watch it, but they would see something that wasn’t there. Her sister’s caresses were meant to relax, not arouse; to comfort, not excite. The massage complete, Caprasia slipped a clean robe over Shadyia’s shoulders and soft sandals on her feet. Deresi led her up the steps to the apartments of the gold belts, entered Shadyia’s room, and guided her to bed. Deresi pulled a heavy blanket up to her chin, kissed her cheek and exited quietly. 
Shadyia sailed on a calm, euphoric sea. Damn it. I didn’t thank Deresi and Caprasia for the bath. She would have to remedy that tomorrow. 
Storm clouds raged on her peaceful horizon. Would the Silver Rose still be her home tomorrow? Makayla had said this would be the last Shadyia saw of her comforts. That could only mean one thing. Expulsion. Dismissal. 
Of course, I could always go to work at one of the other brothels in Anderholm. Eat pasty porridge and sleep on a straw-stuffed mattress crawling with fleas. Service men who had no fear of a Mistress Sybaris to keep them in line. Tomorrow she might be back on the street—or arrested for Dunstan’s death and brought in chains to the bastille. She honestly didn’t know which was worse. 
She had seen the poor wretches who lived on the street. Before that would become her fate, she would find a sharp knife and cut her—wait a moment. How had Caprasia and Deresi warmed the baths just for her? It must have been—yes!—it could only have been on the orders of Amrita. Only the madam could have roused the staff and commanded them to do so. It would be just Amrita’s style to teach a lesson with pleasure, to make Shadyia fully appreciate what she had risked by killing those men. Could that mean Amrita had no intentions to expel her, despite what Makayla had said? 

Please, goddess, let that be so. Allow me to stay in my home. 

The Penance of Pride
Shadyia Ascendants Book 2

Shadyia's Adventure Continues!
'I will never leave you, and I will always come for you.'
Shadyia’s vow to her lover is put to the test when the Innocenti rise and envelope the sisterhood she adores.
As the magician she aided hunts for the path to an ancient city, the new madam of the Silver Rose strives to please the evil that has promised, upon its freedom, to make her a queen.
Meanwhile, the adviser to the Innocenti prepares the final stage of his strategy to crush the faith of the old gods. He needs but a bit of magic to carry out his ultimate plan.
Magicians. Zealots. Madams. Whores. It’s all the same to he who waits within the enchanted box. Soon he will unleash his servants, and every horror of the abyss will once again consume humanity.

IN THE SHADOW of the Black Tower, Shadyia nudged the shoulder of the scruffy, tired woman strolling by her side. When Deresi turned her head, she offered her a spirited wave. Hello, my sweet friend. They both needed a hot bath and a good night’s rest, but that hardly mattered. Deresi was alive. They had each survived the horrors of Mirrikh’s labyrinth with whole skins and sound minds. 
Deresi crossed her eyes and stuck out the tip of her tongue. 
Shadyia shifted her attention to the damp street. Yes, I know. I should stop gawking at you. She couldn’t help it. Her fingers ached to get lost in the tangles of Deresi’s red curls; her ears yearned for the sounds of Deresi’s passion, and her skin craved the warmth they had not shared often enough. I almost lost you. The death they had faced during the past two days made her crave another night, like the smallest fox in a litter peering at the last quail egg. Words Shadyia had spoken that morning they lay entwined in arms, legs and blankets—the morning Deresi had pledged her love—coursed through Shadyia’s veins and spurred her heart to beat. I will never leave you, and I will always come for you. Shadyia had never made such a promise to anyone before. 
She yanked her thoughts from the past and listened in on the men walking a few paces in front of her. Aaron was asking his apprentice what it had been like to hear Verthandi’s voice in his thoughts. 
“I didn’t know it was his voice,” Benjamin replied. “I thought it was mine.” 
Aaron swept a hand through his graying hair and narrowed his gaze at the young man. “But you had no idea how to open the tower. Didn’t it seem odd to you that these thoughts were in your head?” 
Benjamin shrugged. “It does now. At the time, I thought I was just guessing, experimenting. Do this, turn that, push, pull—and then the doors opened. I couldn’t believe it.” 
Shadyia seized the pommel of her blacksteel sword. She couldn’t believe Benjamin had left Janell outside while he bumbled around inside the Black Tower. Janell may be a fellow sister of the Silver Rose, but for all of Madam Amrita’s training, she was a mewling kitten lost in a rainstorm. Anderholm was no city to walk about alone, even for a veteran with a drawn sword and a stern gaze on every dark alley. Shadyia tamped down her anger. If Benjamin hadn’t opened the doors of the tower and entered, she, Deresi and Aaron would now be facing a slow death from thirst and starvation in Mirrikh’s oubliette, the place the ancient magician had used to forget people who had angered him. 
Aaron led them north. They followed the smooth stones of Queen’s Way, the scrape of their footfalls the only sounds in the damp streets. Shadyia glanced around. Too quiet. Today was the second day of Samprina and so the citizens were either fasting in their homes or visiting relatives in the country, but the silence didn’t feel right. Anderholm was a city of noise. The clap of hooves, the roll of wagons, merchants bellowing over one another, armed guards hollering to clear a path for a snobbish lord on horseback, the squeal of orphaned children, the bark of dogs—chaos was the lifeblood of Anderholm. Quiet did not become the trade capitol of the northern realms. 
“Here, this way.” Aaron turned them down a long alley between the Ministry of Art and a pottery warehouse. As Shadyia recalled, the alley ended at the Rum Barrel Inn near the Bridge of Swans. Aaron’s Featherquill Manor, packed with the historical books he had written over his many centuries, was a short walk up a winding road past the other mansions in the Artisan Quarter. When they arrived, he had promised to treat them to an evening of relaxing and recovering. Shadyia blew a gust through her lips at the thought. After two days and a night in the dark, twisting halls of labyrinth, pits of spikes hidden under false floors and shadow beasts that drained the life from their victims, she craved a quiet evening in Deresi’s arms more than all the gold in Anderholm. I just hope Janell made it back there without trouble. 
Midway through the alley, a single-horse cart, driven by two cloaked men, rolled toward them. Shadyia and the others flattened themselves against the wall. She turned her head as it passed. Some mortified soul lay wrapped in a heavy cloth in the back of the cart. Likely the men were gravediggers on their way to—The corpse! Shadyia recognized its white boots. 
“Stop that cart!” 
The driver snapped his reins against the horse as Aaron grabbed the air and twisted his fist. The wheels locked and dragged until the cart screeched to a halt. The driver lashed his reins again, but the horse only reared. The men, one thin and the other large, jumped back off the bench, stepped around the wrapped figure and dropped to the street. They threw open their cloaks and pulled out a pair of long knives. Shadyia drew her blacksteel sword as she and Aaron met them halfway. Aaron twisted his hands, palms outward, and the fat one was hurled against the wall by an unseen force. The other stood dumbfounded until Shadyia knocked the knife out of his hand with a downward slash and pressed the tip of her sword under his chin. 
“Over there, move,” she said, urging the driver, a man with dark lines tattooed on half his face, to stand next to his fat companion. He lifted his hands in surrender and complied. 
The force holding the large man released, but Shadyia moved the tip and pricked the fleshy pouch under his chin. “Drop the knife.” 
The knife clattered to the street and the fat man lifted his portly arms. 
“Dee, check the cart.” 
Deresi snatched the thin man’s knife off the ground and leaped into the cart. Shadyia heard her cut the ropes. She glanced down the alley to make sure no others were coming, but only Benjamin stood there, ringing his hands and looking as if he were not sure what he should do. 
Silence from the cart drove Shadyia to risk a glance. Deresi was sitting back on her heels, her shoulders slumped, staring down at the person she had partly exposed beneath the cloth. “Dee, who is it? Is it Janell?” 
Deresi’s mouth moved but no sound came out. “I…” 
What’s wrong with her? “Dee!” 
“I can’t tell!” Deresi briefly covered her lips with trembling fingers. “I think it is.” 
Benjamin charged, jolting Shadyia as he passed, and leaped into the cart. 
A freezing wave passed over Shadyia. Deresi couldn’t tell? She glanced at Aaron, who had remained at her side, then faced the portly man and jabbed him with the tip. “What did you do to her?” 
The fat man’s jaw shuddered and a drop of blood leaked down his pouch. “She asked to join us.” 
Shadyia nearly stabbed him again when Benjamin’s wail echoed along the alley. “Mentor, please help!” 
Aaron rushed the cart as Shadyia coiled back her sword, daring either man to move. She glanced as Aaron further pulled open the cloth, stained dark red on the inside, to reveal a naked body. Benjamin wailed anew as Aaron placed a hand on her forehead. Deresi scooted back into the corner of the cart and stared at Janell, as motionless as one posing for a sculpture. 
Benjamin sobbed. “What have they done to her?” 
“She’s alive,” Aaron said. 
Movement from the tattooed man caught Shadyia’s attention. His hands came down—back!—and she stabbed deep in his shoulder. 
He snarled, reeled and fell against the wall, his hand over the wound. “You bitch.” He checked the blood on his fingers.“Next time it will be your eye.” 
A bellow of anguish tore Shadyia from the men. Aaron fell off the cart, hit the cobbled stones hard, and rolled on the ground. Benjamin called his name and jumped down as Deresi stood high on her knees, her face pale. 
Benjamin kneeled and grabbed Aaron by the shoulders. “Mentor, what’s wrong, what’s happened?” 
Aaron knocked the hands away and rolled on his side, agony twisting his face. He howled and thrashed as if someone had set fire to his clothing. Shadyia glared at the men. Had they done something? No. They stood with gaping mouths and baffled stares. 
His hands covering his face, Aaron seemed to bring his torment under control. He sat up and turned eyes of pure rage on Shadyia’s prisoners. “Innocenti. They mutilated her,” he said through seething gasps. “That one and that one. There was a third, but he’s not here. They raped and tortured her for hours.” 
He pushed Benjamin back, rolled to his feet, and brought his hands up as if he were lifting the end of a table. The men slammed against the wall and slid up until their feet dangled. 
“Vile warlock,” the tattooed one said then spat. “Fate will be your judge.” 
Lowering her sword, Shadyia stepped back from Aaron, the wrath on his face choking her breath. Never had she seen him so enraged. A pair of sharp metal rods, twice as long as the men were tall, materialized in the air. With a clang of metal on rock that made her jolt, the spikes plunged into the stone at feet of the men. 
They drifted forward and hovered over the sharp ends. 
Terror filling his eyes, the tattooed one thrashed against the force that held him. “No, you can’t do that!” 
The other pissed himself. 
Shadyia reached out her hand. No, Aaron no. Don’t. The men deserved it, but not at the cost of Aaron’s humanity. She touched his shoulder, and a force struck away her hand. 
Aaron didn’t even look in her direction. “Her name is Janell. Say it.” 
“Janell,” both men said. 
“Janell,” they repeated, louder. 
Shadyia’s heart hammered as the stance of their feet widened. She couldn’t stop Aaron any more than grasp a boiling cauldron to stay its heat. 
“Good,” Aaron said and pushed down his hands. The men dropped. 
The spikes pierced their trousers between their legs. The men shrieked louder than Shadyia thought a human throat capable. Blood soaked their leggings as they slowly slid until their boots touched the street. She cringed before the horror. This had to be an illusion. Aaron had said he couldn’t make actual things, not without— 
The men shrieked once more as the shirts behind their necks stretched and tore. The spikes reemerged, their tips glistening in blood. 
Aaron turned his back on the screaming, flailing men and stepped into the cart. He pulled the cloth over Janell, leaving her face uncovered. 
“I don’t know of a physician in Anderholm who could help her. Do you have any at the Silver Rose?” 
“Yes, we do,” Shadyia replied, unable to stop her trembling. “And we use jilqu oil.” 
He sat in the center of the bench and took the reins of the near panicked horse. Shadyia returned the blacksteel sword to its sheath and leaped in next to a pale-faced Deresi. Benjamin quickly joined her and the cart jerked straight thanks to an unseen force. Aaron tapped the reins. 
The cries of the men followed as they rolled along the alley. 
Darkness that made Shadyia think of the labyrinth pressed in on all sides as the wagon made its way along the forest road in Kingsleaf. Every bump the wagon’s wheels stuck jarred her like men beating her with their fists. Benjamin lay next to Janell and stroked what remained of her hair. The Innocenti torturers had hacked most of it off, probably with a knife. Tears made lines on his cheeks as he called her name. Janell didn’t respond. 
Deresi sat with her back to the corner, hugging her knees. She didn’t speak or look at Janell. She’s as horrified as me, and not just as what had happened to Janell. Shadyia had never seen men impaled. The practice had been outlawed in Anderholm more than a century ago. The stories she heard had always seemed exaggerated. No man could actually survive an injury like that for more than a few seconds. She no longer believed that. 
The rising moon gave them enough light to see the road, but just barely. Shadyia sighed. Soon they would arrive at the Silver Rose. Makayla will probably blame me for what happened to Janell. The new madam of the Silver Rose had commanded Shadyia not to leave the palace without her permission, and now she was returning in a wagon with a sister near death, a coin she was supposed to be seducing, his apprentice and Deresi. Fate hates me tonight. Shadyia chastised herself at the thought. If they had been a moment sooner or later, she never would have seen the cart and those vile men would likely now be burying Janell in a shallow grave outside the city. Aaron believed there were no gods, but at times like this, when events were too grave to be mere coincidence, Shadyia found it hard to agree with him. 
She reached down and touched Janell’s neck. The pulse was there, but weak. She looked at Aaron, still at the reins. He hadn’t spoken since driving them out of the city and into the forest. Words formed in her mouth, but the will to utter them couldn’t cross her throat. The magic Aaron had used to kill those men wasn’t beautiful and wondrous. It wasn’t butterflies hovering over his hand or a variety of delicious treats to eat and drink. For the first time in her life, she feared a man. 
They cleared the forest and approached the Dawn Gate. She unbuckled the baldric holding blacksteel sword and hid it as best she could. If anyone searched the cart they’d likely find it. She didn’t care. 
Aaron stopped the cart and jumped off. He walked to the back, gathered up Janell and carried her to the gate. Benjamin raced him there and franticly rang the bell. The minutes that followed passed in a blur of activity. Guardian sisters escorted them in, calling for Mrs. Amber, the palace physician. Sisters cried out as they saw Janell. The word spread and soon a crowd of weeping, angry or shocked women gathered round. Sleepy-eyed Mrs. Amber appeared and ordered them back. She asked Aaron to carry Janell to the nearest bed, a pleasure room off the west wing. Allowing only two assistants to follow, she placed guardians outside the door and told everyone else to wait. 
The doors to White Hall flew open and Makayla stormed through with Thoria—as always—close on her heels. 
“Who brought her?” The madam’s voice silenced the chamber. 
Aaron stepped forward. “I did.” 
The fury drained from Makayla’s face. “I see.” She smoothed her black dress. “What happened?” 
“Innocenti raped and tortured her,” Aaron replied evenly. 
Makayla’s long black hair covered half her face as she tilted her head. “Unfortunate.” 
Shadyia’s fists tightened at her side. “Unfortunate? That’s all you have to say?” 
“No, Sister Shadyia, that’s not all I have to say. We will tend to Sister Janell’s wounds as best we can. In the morning, I will prepare a letter of complaint against the Innocenti and have it delivered to the magistrate. They will see those who committed these acts are brought to justice.” Makayla turned and walked toward the audience, her heels clicking. 
Shadyia allowed her a few steps. Not so fast, bitch. “Maybe they’ll start with you.” 
Deresi, the sisters, guardians, Benjamin and Aaron stood as statues as Makayla halted. She rounded on Shadyia. “Watch your tongue, Sister, or I will have it removed.” 
Shadyia’s rage coiled like a serpent about to strike. If she had kept the blacksteel sword and not hidden it in the wagon, they’d be cleaning Makayla’s blood off the walls and floor for a week. “Give that command and I will kill you and any who try to carry it out.” 
Thoria drew her baton and advanced on Shadyia. Aaron rushed forward and intercepted the blond guardian with his body. 
“Madam, please call away your guard.” 
“Thoria, step back.” 
Her scowl locked on Shadyia, Thoria obeyed. 
Makayla put her hands on her hips, her long sleeves hanging down. “Speak your mind, Sister. Why do you say such a thing?” 
“If you hadn’t sent Janell to the Kaolins, she wouldn’t have sought refuge with the Innocenti.” 
“And if she had carried out my command, none of this would have happened. What sort of fool asks the Innocenti for anything?” 
“The sort that cannot see them for what they are,” Shadyia replied. “The sort that thinks they are knights from a fairy tale. The sort that talks about joining them—” She leveled her finger. “—as you knew perfectly well!” 
Makayla huffed. “You dare accuse me of deliberately driving Janell to the Innocenti?” 
“I do.” 
Benjamin spoke up. “She didn’t go to the Innocenti. She came to me last night.” 
Makayla pivoted toward him. “And who are you?” 
“I am Aaron’s apprentice, Benjamin.” 
Her hazel eyes moved from him to Aaron and back. “So how did she end up with the Innocenti?” 
Benjamin looked to Aaron, who shook his head once. 
“We got separated in the city this morning.” The young man dropped his gaze. 
Makayla faced Shadyia. “And do you also blame me for this, Sister?” 
“I do not,” Shadyia replied. Damn the boy and his honesty. 
“The hour is late and our nerves are raw,” Aaron said. “Madam, please take the finest care of Janell. I will personally cover any expense.” 
“Consider it done.” 
“Madam,” Benjamin said, getting her attention, “may I stay with Janell?” 
Makayla sighed. “That will be up to Mrs. Amber, but we will prepare a room for you in any case.” 
“Thank you, Madam.” 
Aaron stepped near to Shadyia and lowered his voice. “Why don’t you and Deresi come with me to Featherquill?” 
The dying rage in Shadyia still seethed, but she looked to Deresi. Did she want to visit Featherquill? Deresi nodded in agreement. 
Aaron turned back to Makayla. “Madam, may I have the pleasure of both Sister Shadyia and Sister Deresi this night?” 
Makayla raised an eyebrow. “You wish them both, sir?” 
“I have lots to celebrate.” 
“These sisters look disheveled and exhausted, sir. May I ask how they came to be in this state?” 
Shadyia glanced at Aaron. He mustn’t mention the labyrinth or— 
“It’s my fault, Madam,” Aaron said. “We played a game in some ruins beyond the forest. I wanted Sister Shadyia to hide and I would search for her. Sister Deresi was concerned when her friend didn’t return and found us this morning. I invited her to play and…well, things got out of hand. My apologies.” 
“None needed, Master Aaron. The coin you’ve offered more than pays for their services. But, do you not wish them bathed, perfumed and properly dressed before they leave with you?” 
Aaron glanced at Shadyia and Deresi. “To be honest, Madam, I rather like them in this state and I’m not yet finished with them. By your leave, I will take them as they are.” 
Makayla arched an eyebrow. “Your vigor will make you a legend, Aaron of Featherquill.” She grinned. “Very well, but have Sister 
Deresi return by noon tomorrow.” 
“As you wish.” 
An arm around both their hips, Aaron led her and Deresi toward the main doors. The sisters dispersed, mumbling quietly among themselves. Makayla’s heels clicked away. 
“Wait,” Deresi said as Shadyia put a hand on the outer doors. “I’ll be right back.” 
Aaron watched her run off then turned to Shadyia. “You should better watch your words around your madam.” 
Fuck her! If not for Benjamin’s blundering innocence and Aaron’s disarming remarks, there would have been a long-overdue fight here. A part of her still wished for that. “You have no idea how much I hate that woman.” 
“I have some idea,” he said, his expression serious. 
Maybe he does at that. Aaron had said Verthandi had seduced Makayla. “Do you still feel his influence on her?” 
Aaron pressed his lips and nodded. “More than ever.” 
She seized his arm and hushed her voice. “Then let’s deal with her, here and now. I’ll go with you.” 
That infuriating calm crossed his features. “And what of her guards? And the other sisters? Are you prepared to fight them? And even if we could turn them to your side, what happens when the Redcloaks find out? From what you’ve told me, Makayla is the rightful heir to this palace. If we depose her, we would be criminals in the eyes of the law.” 
She scowled. Damn his logic! He was worse than Sybaris. 
He leaned close. “We will deal with her eventually, after this business with the ruby is completed. If Verthandi is released—” He glanced around at the walls. “—what does any of this matter?” 
Shadyia hissed a sigh. “If you say so.” But if she crosses me just one more time… 
Deresi returned carrying a familiar flat, wooden box. 
“My dress,” Shadyia said. 
“I wanted to see it on you.” 
Aaron looked at the elegant box. “You have a dress in there?” 
Shadyia took the box, glanced around to make sure they weren’t observed, and opened the lid with her thumbs. 
Aaron whistled. “That is mag-nificent.” 
Shadyia snapped closed the lid and kissed Deresi on the cheek. “Thanks, hon.” 
“Where ever did you get that?” Aaron asked. “It must have cost a fortune.” 
Deresi offered her an evil grin. “Go on, tell him.” 
Shadyia cringed. “You know the seer in the market? The one posing as a tailor?” 
Aaron nodded slowly. Just before the three of them had descended into the labyrinth, Aaron had confided that he too had had some dealings with that mysterious seer. She had prophesized that he must find Æthelmaer’s ruby in Mirrikh’s labyrinth or Verthandi would walk the world again. 
Shadyia tapped the box. “She made this for me.” The seer had also told Shadyia that Anderholm would burn in a matter of days. More insanity added to an insane situation. 
Aaron brushed his fingers over the flat box. “I have a feeling we have not seen the last of her. Let’s go to the stables. Our horses must be kicking the walls down by now.” 
Shadyia recovered the blacksteel sword, still in its baldric, from the wagon. Careful to conceal it with her body from anyone who might be watching from the palace, she hid the fine weapon deep in the stables then roused two of the men from their cottage out back. Paying them a silver each, she asked them to bring out the Ramiero chargers, attach them to a carriage and drive Aaron, Deresi and herself to Featherquill. Xavier didn’t appreciate being employed as a carriage horse, but Shadyia rewarded him with a few carrots and words of praise until he grudgingly accepted the harness. 
A swaying lantern flung their shadows along the walls as their closed carriage returned through the Kingsleaf. The rhythm of the wheels, and the peace of leaving the palace far behind, pulled Shadyia into blissful rest. 
“May I see it?” Deresi asked. 
Aaron unfastened the pouch at his side, brought out the ruby, and placed it in Deresi’s cupped hands. 
Light from the lantern passed through the ruby and drew red marks on Deresi’s face. She made the kind of sound women usually reserve for holding a kitten. “It’s so beautiful.” 
Shadyia forced open her eyes and considered the ruby. On the surface, it looked like the kind of gem an emperor would wear on his crown, but Aaron had said its true value lay within the magic it held. The ruby, he told them, absorbed the knowledge of all the magicians who had ever owned it like a cloth on spilt wine. 
Shadyia leaned over and kissed Deresi’s cheek. “I can’t believe you picked Mirrikh’s pocket. You amaze me.” When Mirrikh had seized both her and Aaron in his magic, Deresi had slid to her knees, grabbed his robe, and begged Mirrikh not to harm them. It must have been in that instant that she had dipped her hand into his large pocket and fished out the ruby. 
Deresi turned the tear-shaped ruby over and examined its base. The broad end had a shallow, round indention in it. “What is this for?” 
“That is where you insert the end of a sagewood staff.” 
Shadyia circled her finger inside the indention. Aaron had said if a staff made from sagewood touched the ruby, it would transform into a Valkyrise, an artifact of the magi lords. With this wondrous staff, a magician could triple his power and be immune to all magical attacks. Moreover, if anyone spent enough time with a Valkyrise, they could eventually learn to use magic like a magician. That last bit had particularly caught Deresi’s attention. 
“Do you think we could get the sagewood staff from the Asyerian clerics?” 
Aaron shook his head. “I seriously doubt it. Sagewood is as rare as any treasure in the world. We could be thrown into the Ahmeinian dungeons just for inquiring about their staff, let alone asking them to let us have it.” 
Shadyia thought on that. “What if we were to tell the Asyerians about Verthandi and the Ashkhan escaping?” 
The carriage jolted over a bump, making Aaron hop in his seat “That would get us tossed into an asylum instead of the dungeon.” He huffed a laugh and held out his hand in a silent request for the return of the ruby. “No, I will use this to find out how to travel to Celestrial. The archives there should have all known information about the prison of the Ashkhan.” 
Deresi, her gaze locked on the gem, nodded. “Yeah, that might work.” 
Shadyia nudged Deresi’s side. She had probably not heard anything Aaron had said. Grinning, he gently pried the ruby from Deresi’s fingers. She made a small sound of protest, but dropped her hands to her lap. 
“Tell me something, please,” Deresi said as Aaron returned the ruby to his pouch. 
“What’s it like to use magic?” 
The carriage tilted around a bend as Aaron seemed to consider his answer. “When you first feel the ether, it’s like being parched and drinking from an icy waterfall. It flows over you, refreshes you. You can’t imagine anything being more wonderful. But you can only drink so much and that feeling, believe it or not, passes. You want to learn where the water comes from—and you have this insatiable desire to control the water, make it stop or fall faster. That’s the trap.” 
Deresi blinked. “What do you mean?” 
“A wise man once said, there is none so improvised as he who wants more than he has. Look at this.” Aaron lifted his left hand, palm up, and passed his right over it. A sphere of blazing flames appeared and hovered just above his cupped fingers. 
Deresi’s green eyes widened. “Whoa!” Before Shadyia could stop her, she reached for the flame. “Ouch!” She snatched her hand away and put the tips of two fingers in her mouth. 
“Are you all right?” Shadyia took Deresi’s hand and inspected it. 
Deresi nodded. “It’s fine.” 
A wave of heat from the fire above Aaron’s hand brushed Shadyia’s face. Deresi had probably assumed the flames were an illusion. Maybe they were. “A little warning next time, if you please.” 
He closed his hand and the flames vanished. “What I just did there was nothing to me. I felt no sense of wonder or accomplishment. If I were a cruel man, I would delight in hurting Deresi, but I’m not, so I can’t even enjoy that.” 
Deresi glanced at her fingers. “It felt so real.” 
“It wasn’t,” Aaron said, and leaned back on his seat. 
He had created something to fool their minds—why? Shadyia cupped her hand over Deresi’s hand. “I still don’t see your point.” 
“There was a time that when I made something like that, I felt like a god. I had created fire. Do you understand? Fire I knew wasn’t real, but still I would burn my fingers if I touched it. These days, creating an illusion like that is as easy as breathing. Imagine going from feeling like a god, to feeling nothing. Every magician who has ever used magic wants to feel that initial rush again—” Aaron’s hands became fists. “—craves it.” 
Shadyia nodded. “Like breathing the smoke from the black ickrus.” 
He stabbed a finger at her. “Exactly. Thankfully, I’ve never tried ickrus, but from what people have told me, it’s marvelous. You feel as if you are flying through the clouds. Over time, however, the fumes no longer give the same sensation, but the memory of that experience drives one to take more and more until it consumes your every thought.” 
Deresi shook her head. “All right, but that’s illusion. You said there were magicians who could create things for real.” 
Aaron rubbed his forehead. “Oh, that’s even worse.” 
Deresi yelped in disbelief. “How could it be worse?” 
“Imagine if I snapped my fingers and created a necklace of gold and emeralds. A real one.” 
She grinned. “I like that thought.” 
He lifted his chin. “Why?” 
“Emeralds are beautiful, and you can buy things with them. Castles and servants and nice dresses.” 
“Could I buy a thousand castles if I made a thousand emerald necklaces?” 
The carriage creaked and swayed as Deresi chewed her lower lip in thought. “I guess not. It wouldn’t be worth anything if there were a thousand of them.” 
Shadyia drummed her fingers on the leather armrest at her side. Easy for a king with rooms full of treasure to say gold and gems have no meaning, but for the rest of the peasants, wealth was still a splendid thing. “You told me in the castle ruins that no amount of power could thwart fear. Was that true of Mirrikh? Was he afraid?” 
Aaron arched an eyebrow. “Do you even need to ask? He had power I could only imagine. He once owned a Valkyrise. When we found him, he wore enchanted artifacts that preserved his life and kept him from all magical harm. Yet…” 
Shadyia nodded. “Yet he hid in a labyrinth for centuries.” 
“Precisely. I am certain, despite all that he was and all that he owned, Mirrikh felt inadequate, paranoid and—yes—afraid.” 
Shadyia shook her head against the thought. Would she be the same? If she had the power Mirrikh possessed, would she only crave more? It was difficult to believe there would come a time when working magic became as dull as doing the washing. Magic opened new worlds, new experiences. To grasp the unknown, to entertain the masses, to conquer the lands of your enemy… 
To kill men who delighted in torture. 
Shadyia stared at Aaron. Soon they would arrive in Anderholm and his manor in the Artisan Quarter. If she were to ever understand what had happened in the alley, now would be the time. “May I ask you about something difficult?” 
Aaron turned grim as if he had expected her to breach this matter. “Go ahead.” 
“What happened to you in the alley?” Shadyia asked. 
He briefly closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and released it. “I touched Janell’s mind to learn who was responsible for her injuries.” 
“You can do that too?” Deresi asked. “Remarkable.” 
“No,” Aaron replied curtly. “Foolish. I acted in haste and didn’t put up the proper defenses. I felt a portion of what they did to Janell as if it were done to me. It nearly drove me insane.” 
Deresi crossed her fingers over her lips. “You felt what she did?” 
He nodded. “Some of it.” 
A chill brushed Shadyia’s nape. Some of it. Aaron had writhed on the ground and screamed in agony. As he had recovered, he had said three Innocenti had taken turns on Janell. One of those three men was still out there, but two of them had paid for their acts with pain and humiliation equal, Shadyia hoped, to what they had done to Janell. Or had they? “Those men in the wagon, what you did to them, was that real?” 
“It was real to them.” 
Deresi visibly shuddered. “I wish I hadn’t seen that. I mean, I know they deserved it, but I can’t get it out of my mind.” 
Aaron rubbed his forehead. “For that, I deeply apologize. I acted out of rage with no regard for you or Shadyia. I should have told you to look away.” 
“I wouldn’t have, even if you’d asked.” Shadyia had wanted to see those vile men die. 
The haunted look in Deresi’s eyes told she did not feel the same. “Will Janell recover?” 
Aaron responded with a slight shrug. “I think she’ll survive, but she won’t be Janell any longer. At least, I don’t think so. She may prove us wrong.” 
When Aaron opened the cloth covering Janell, her chin and neck had been covered in dry blood, probably form having her tongue cut out. They had pressed branding irons against her breasts until—Fuck! Shadyia quivered. Stop thinking about it! “So those men are still alive?” she asked, her tone hot with anger. 
“Oh no.” Aaron shook his head. “In the morning, the city guard will find two dead men in that alley. There will be no evidence of what killed them, but to those Innocenti, they were impaled.” 
Shadyia clenched the fingers on her thigh into a fist. “Good.” 
Deresi soft hand cupped over Shadyia’s fist. She reached across the cabin and offered her other hand to Aaron. “I know you don’t believe in the gods, but can we pray for Janell?” 
He took her hand. “Certainly.” 
Deresi closed her eyes. “Hallowed Luun, goddess of strength, guide our fallen sister, Janell, back into the light. Let her know she is loved and we miss her and need her in our lives.” 
“May it be so,” Shadyia said, her anger vanishing. 
“May it be so,” Aaron repeated. 
Shadyia lifted Deresi’s hand and kissed her knuckles. “I’ve never heard you pray before.” 
She shrugged. “Can’t hurt.” 
Aaron let go of Deresi’s hand. “We should arrive at my home soon. So, tell me ladies, how may I reward you for your magnificent service?” 
Shadyia yawned. Enough of rewards and magic. “As I said outside the tower, a bath, a hot meal, and some rest are all I need.” 
“There must be more.” 
She leaned her head on Deresi’s shoulder and closed her eyes. “At the moment, I cannot see past that.” 
“I know what she wants,” Deresi said. 
“Tell me,” Aaron asked. 
“She wants to dance at the Crystal Ballroom.” 
That snapped Shadyia awake. “I do, eh?” 
“Yes, and don’t even deny it.” Deresi bopped the end of Shadyia’s nose. “I saw how your eyes lit up when I told you how I snuck in there.” 
Aaron arched his eyebrows as if impressed. “You did?” 
Deresi bobbed her head. “About five years ago.” She pushed a lock of red hair behind one ear. “I broke in one night with some friends. Just make sure when you take her, there’s plenty of music. She has no imagination.” 
Aaron pursed his lips and nodded. “I’ll see what I can do. And what about you, Dee? What would you like, besides a servant to polish your toes?” 
Shadyia grinned. To lighten the tension in the labyrinth, Deresi had joked—had it been a joke?—that she had always wanted to be wealthy enough to employ someone to polish her toes. Just that and nothing else. Polish her toes. 
“Oh the usual,” Deresi said with a flip of her wrist. “A castle in the clouds, a dozen flying horses and my own queendom.” 
Aaron stared at her a moment then blinked. “That may take a bit longer, but I’ll get to work on it.” 
Deresi exchanged her smirk for a serious look. “You know what I’d really like?” 
“Tell me, please.” 
“I’d like to be a magician. I want to do the things you do.” She wiggled her fingers. 
Shadyia rolled her eyes. Oh, just great. Aaron would remind her that women were never trained as magicians and such power came with a price few were willing to pay. Deresi would argue and Shadyia would have to mediate. She’d get no rest on the way to Featherquill. 
“I can help you there,” Aaron said with sincerity. “It will take some time and lots of hard work, but if you’re willing, so am I.” 
Deresi lifted her chin. “I am.” 
Shadyia silently admonished herself. Aaron wasn’t the type to have his hands tied by tradition, nor was he a stuffy lord of Anderholm who needed to dominate the women in his life. But Deresi as a magician? For some reason, Shadyia pictured a cat with wings. I only hope she doesn’t fly too close to the sun. 
“All right then, but tell me something, both of you. Do you wish to leave the Silver Rose?” 
Shadyia was aware that Deresi was looking at her even before she turned her head so she could meet her curious green eyes. Leave the Silver Rose? It had been more than her home for six years; it was her identity. The money was easy and she loved the work, the games of seduction. She was the finest of the sisters, a gold belt, envied and respected. Why should I leave? 
Even as that question coursed through her mind, she knew the answer. She had dared to enter a labyrinth of death, fought deadly shadows and had even driven her sword through Mirrikh’s ghostly face so that her companions could escape. But it wasn’t just the adventures and terrors under the Black Tower. Aaron had told her of ancient civilizations and faraway lands. 
There was so much to the world she had yet to see, so much she had yet to experience. Janell needed to be avenged, Makayla needed to be dealt with—probably with the help of Sybaris—and the sisters needed to be protected from the Innocenti, but when that was done, the time had come to seek new horizons and new challenges. 
“Yes,” she said. 
Deresi touched her knee. “Are you sure, hon?” 
Shadyia nodded. “I can’t go back to whoring, not anymore. I think, maybe, finding Janell closed that door forever. I want to make a difference in this world. It’s what my foster father would have desired for me.” 
Somewhere, beyond the veil where the spirits traveled, she imagined her foster father smiling. Maybe he didn’t ride celestial horses across the eternal plains of Eriensym, but Aaron said the spirits of good men continued on past a mortal death. She hoped so. 
“What about the sisterhood?” Deresi asked. 
“I’ll find a way to keep them safe from the Innocenti. I don’t know how just yet, but when that’s done, so am I.” 
Deresi discreetly squeezed Shadyia’s thigh. “I’ll follow you anywhere.” 
Shadyia kissed Deresi’s neck, just below the ear. If Aaron hadn’t been sitting there, it would have been her lips that got kissed, and more. 
“You’re both welcome to stay at Featherquill as long as you wish,” Aaron said. “My home is your home.” 
“Thank you, Aaron,” Shadyia said. 
Deresi added her gratitude with a sweet smile. 
“Listen, when we get there, you won’t see much of me until tomorrow. I’m going to be in a special room I’ve constructed under the house.” He patted the bulge in his pouch. “I want to study this as much as I can. I’ll show you how to contact me if you need to, it’s easy. Just a bell you need to ring. But please, make sure it’s important before you do.” 
“I understand,” Shadyia said. “You need to save the world.” 
“And you need to save your sisterhood.” 
“And then we will take a long, lovely holiday,” Deresi added. 
A long holiday. Shadyia hummed at the thought. That we will do. 

The Shadyia Ascendant Book Series is the kind of fantasy book I wanted to read, but could never find. Sexy, powerful, positive.
The heroes are beaten, but are never broken.
Although this is a medieval setting (more or less 15th century Renaissance), the characters don’t scratch at fleas and trug through the book ass-deap in mud and blood and disease. I’m sure all that is accurate, but I never wanted to read about it.
I wanted magic that is rare, women that are bold and beautiful, mysterious magicians with a hidden agenda, and gods that move mortals about like pieces on a chessboard. That’s the book I wanted.
I was inspired by the fantasy writer David Gemmell in terms of pace. When you read one of his books, you get your money’s worth. He won’t spend eleven chapters with this characters arguing in a castle. The term “I could never put it down” fits a Gemmell book perfectly, and it’s what I have striven to accomplish in the Shadyia Ascendant series.
Get ready for a sexy adventure you won’t soon forget!
A graduate in history, specializing in Central-European history, I'm an avid computer gamer, reader enthusiast, and teacher of English as a foreign language. I'm American and currently reside in Poland.

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